When Your Abuser Gets Married

(Editor’s note: Trigger warning for descriptions of emotional, physical, and sexual abuse.) A few days ago, I was browsing Facebook, bored, when I happened to come on a picture that stopped me dead in my tracks. It was a picture of a smiling man, his arm around a beautiful woman, small bouquet, suit and dress, all the trappings of a standard wedding photo. “We’re married!” it sang, evidence of another happy couple giving it a go and making a commitment to each other on their terms.

Only, the man in the photo was my ex, my very first boyfriend. This also was the same man whose emotional and eventual physical abuse left such a deep impact on my developing self that I was unable to form meaningful relationships for years, for fear that I would be hurt again.  I secretly battled depression, self-harm, and anxiety over being physically touched for years even though everything seemed fine. At the time, I never thought of myself as “a victim” or as someone who had been through a sort of trauma. It took years of undoing things I had come to believe about people and really, about myself, that I amassed the clarity and hindsight to really look at the situation and realize what I had been through and how deeply it traveled with me, throughout all my personal relationships.

His photo stared at me, with the same smug look that is often burned into my brain and used to come out in the moments when I was trying to enjoy myself the most.  He looked content, his wife, happy. There was nothing out of the ordinary to separate this photo from the million other wedding photos out there. There was nothing that would ever give evidence that the beautiful, happy woman he was holding around the waist was the woman he started dating after our disastrous relationship. Sometimes, I can’t help but question myself ““ did I imagine it? Was it really as bad as I perceive it to be?  It’s questions like this that made me keep it locked away for so many years, wanting to spare myself the questioning of my intentions by confronting it, by spelling it out. I was scared someone would tell me I was wrong, that I was a liar, that I was just trying to ruin a young man’s life. I was scared no one would believe me, that I was being over dramatic or making it up.

When I was younger, I had an idea of what “abuse” looked like. I was certain that I would never find myself at the end of it and that I, unlike some of the women in my family, would never let myself end up in a situation where I would be victimized. I was strong and smart; I knew better, I was raised better. Of course, abuse, to me, was defined as the overtly violent depictions I had seen in passing in Lifetime movies or heard talked about quietly between family members; hush-hush topics that weren’t dare spoken of unless in private. Abuse was black and white, not the quietly manipulative gestures that would later define my first experience with dating, with sex, with what it meant to experience a form of abuse. It wasn’t abuse. It was something else, something nameless.

At first, it was very minor things. Bringing me home later than he was supposed to. Hiding my phone from me so I was unable to call anyone. Talking about how horrible my mother was. Didn’t I see she was trying to ruin me? He slowly separated me from the people I was closest to, helping me drive a wedge between anyone who could have ever offered me an outside perspective. I had become isolated, relying solely on him for companionship. Everyone else just didn’t care as much. They didn’t love me they way he did.

When I would try to break out and regain friendships or spend time with my family, he would threaten suicide. More than once he climbed into his car, turning on the ignition, threatening that my actions had caused him to go overboard. He would talk about how my selfishness was degrading him, how my immature actions were despicable– he just happened to love me enough to see past it all. My confidence eroded. My weight dropped. I couldn’t even understand how someone as good as him could love me.

Of course, there was sex too. At first, it was consensual and then it became less and less something I wanted. There would be times when I would say no or I don’t want to, and yet somehow I would find myself with him on top of me, watching myself from above. He would sometimes forcefully grab at me, inflicting pain. When I would yell out or say it hurt, he would only smile and tell me I was being too oversensitive, that I needed to grow up. There were other times when he would tell me how awful my body was while having sex with me, as I silently blocked out everything around me. At one point, he became transfixed on a young woman we both mutually knew, often comparing me to her, how she was much sexier than me, how he imagined her when with me, telling me the things about her that were better than myself. How he would leave me at any moment for her. My body became quiet, lying limp. Saying no became obsolete. My body was not my own.

In the book The Revolution Starts At Home, most of the contributors talk about how things start one way or another and then lead elsewhere. That people who were involved in activist communities happened to meet this person they then became romantically involved with, who wanted justice like they did, who believed in community, who were respected. Who then emotionally, sexually and physically abused them and would go back to those very same communities talking about the widespread problems of violence. He was part of a gay-straight alliance, was involved with anti-racism groups, was a leader in a multi-faith youth group that embraced lefty politics. He went to church. He was an honor student. He was a soccer star.  He would then also block my path if I tried to leave. Grabbing my breast, squeezing and twisting them in public or in the car. He also began squeezing my neck anytime I would say something he didn’t like. Each time, it got harder and harder, at one point, when we were in the car together, he did it so drastically and hard that we almost swerved off the road. He moved on from my neck to my legs and arms, squeezing and twisting them when he felt like it, often leaving bright red burns that would dissipate in minutes. For years, I was terrified to have anyone touch my neck and when a hapless young guy I dated much later grabbed my neck in a moment of affection, I broke down screaming at him and he could never know why.

I don’t know the exact reason why I stayed so long. I was young, sure, but I think most of all, I was numb. Everything that I felt I had become up until that point ceased to be, as I became a walking zombie of my former self. He would push me when taunting me, as if to mock the person I had become, the incredibly fearful and insecure person. His pushing, which then became accompanied with screaming, would become more and more habitual, like a dare to get me to finally snap and be met with what would be “actual” physical violence, the type I perceived as “abuse.”  That was the abuse I wouldn’t stand for.

I tried ending it many times, but was always met with fear and consequences. Our relationship finally ended with a pregnancy scare where I remember my ex looking at me and telling me that I would have to rely on him from now on, that I couldn’t get an abortion since I was only 16. I would have to drop out of school and take care of his child. We would have to get married. I would have to be saved by him, once again, as I was too incompetent to do it myself. His devious eyes bore down at me, smiling smugly, as I waited breathless on a pregnancy test. He was about to regain control. I remember sitting there thinking that I could get friends to beat me up in hopes of a miscarriage, or that I would eat something that would make me sick. I remember thinking; I will get an abortion, no matter what. I will not do this. As the stick turned into a life-saving blue, I knew that I was free. I was free to go back to a life, my life. Without even missing a beat, I ran to my mother’s beat-up Jeep that I had driven over and drove away without saying a word. I was free.

He would later say in voicemails say that he poked holes in the condom to get me pregnant, though he took it back. I do not know the truth on that matter. I erased every trace of him in my life, though to have thought he would have done the same, was naive. He would stalk me when I was out with friends, watching from his car or from mere feet away. He would call our house and hang up after several seconds. He would see me out and walk by me, bumping his body into mine as if to remind me that he was still capable making his physical presence known. He would later go on to tell every single person he knew that I was a slut, that I was a whore, that I really hurt him and was a genuinely bad person. It worked. People would chide me for this, my friends would talk about him and all I could do was silently sit with my mouth shut on what happened. My mother, bless her for hating what he did to me, would bring up how awful he was, and I could only quietly think how disappointed she would be in me if she knew the things I had let happen to me.

The release from this relationship was mind-boggling, much like I had just come up for air after being underwater so long that it hurts your lungs and you feel dizzy.  It was as if my head turned back on and I became aware of everything around me again. I was alive. I wanted a life again. But those around me, who couldn’t see what had happened, were not so quick to forgive. It took my mother years to trust me again and I often denigrated that trust by acting out irrationally when I felt I needed some form of release so I wouldn’t have to deal with all the shit in my head. My friends yelled at me about how stupid I was, how they had to think about letting me back in after the hurt I had caused by ditching them. Guys that I would try to date afterwards were met with skittish and secretive behavior, always keeping them at a distance, making sure that if anyone got hurt, it would be them. I quietly dealt with depression and anxiety, never letting on that this thing that happened had somehow affected me. Nothing had really happened to me. That wasn’t abuse. How could I call it abuse when people suffered so many more awful things? Abuse was something different, something else, something that I would be foolish to consider myself as experiencing. At least, that is what I told myself for so very long.

It is now almost a decade later. My life is far from what I could have ever imagined as a terrified 15, 16-year-old. I have a partner who I undeniably love, who respects me and treats me as equal, and has listened to bits and pieces of this story with nothing but support in return. I have a family who supports everything I do, and knowing what I know now, would have supported me fully if I had ever told them the full story. While I am vulnerable as the next person, I have found in myself, found the inherent strength in myself to be able to finally deal with it, and to be able to move on, a privilege many survivors and non-survivors are unable to do. It has become like a bad dream, fading away quickly, and sometimes rising to the top.

There is a quote by Lynn Marie of The Last Straw, a site that supports those who have experienced varied degrees of abuse.

To be a survivor”“ first you must bleed. You bleed all that was inside of you: the pain, the memories, the fear, the wounds fusing together, the ties to what was in, all its forms. You bleed not once but several times.. And when you are empty, you either fade into a shadow or find the strength, and courage to live. When you stand up again, you are for a time, hollow”“ empty, like a bottle of beer lying on the street, cracked and reeking of its bitter contents. Then you fill yourself up with the new, your recreate yourself”“ you reform. You don’t have the same heart or mind. The way you see the world is forever changed.

As I look at this wedding picture, I feel neither fear nor sorrow, nor anger or hate. I look at this woman, who looks happy in her new marriage and hope that she has not experienced what I had. I hope her happiness is genuine, not a cover for something darker that lays below the surface, a mask over things that happen behind closed doors. I click to close out the screen window with their picture and walk away from the computer, back into my life now, back into the person I am “here.” I will not let myself return to that past unless it is on my terms. I will not let the past scare me or make my choices for me. I will get up everyday, only to do my personal best, for myself and for the betterment of others. I will tell my partner and my family that I love them as often as I can. I will show it to them at any moment. These are the actions I have come to see as the way I have to live, after years of trying to figure it all out.

11 replies on “When Your Abuser Gets Married”

I feel like this completely describes my first relationship. He never made it to the point of physical abuse, but when I stood up for myself, he was always quick to remind me, “You’re lucky I’m so good to you. It isn’t like I hit you!”

I ended things 9 months ago. I’m with someone new who is kind, thoughtful, caring, and respectful. I never knew that a relationship could be like this.

Thank you for this. (I’m actually kind of sad that I missed this when it was originally published. I don’t think I was ready to read it at that time, though. Now I am.)

Amazing post. Well-written, and so moving. It’s awful that you had to go through all that, especially as a teenager when life is already hard enough, but I think in sharing your story, you will have helped someone, and helped others to understand. I’m glad life is better now.

I feel like I should put a trigger warning in my comment, so yeah. Consider yourself warned, but I guess if you’re reading this article, you are aware.

It turns out I have been in a couple of abusive relationships; the first was emotionally and mentally abusive (he cut me off from having a life outside of him, talked crap about my family, and demeaned everything I cared about). The second was not physically abusive, but he was horribly cruel to me when I needed support, made all of “our” problems my fault, and would talk to my friends behind my back about how terrible I was as a person (yes, they defended me and totally called me whenever it happened). Only yesterday was I able to admit to my therapist that he raped me. Last night was difficult to say the least. It wasn’t the physically constrained type of rape, but guilt-tripping, shaming, and even “I’ll leave you alone about having sex with me if you let me do it this one time, even though you are crying and in serious pain and then I will oddly get off on your pain” oh my god. It makes me want to take a shower. Mostly I’m mad at myself for letting this happen. People tell me how strong and independent I am, and it makes me feel like such a failure.

Thank you for writing this. One of the hardest things is seeing the abuse enough to know you have to get away. Even though I did, finally, see what was happening and get myself out of there, looking back, I’m appalled by how long it took me to do something and how blind I was to how bad it was. I hope we, as a culture and as women, can become more open about this topic and help each other to recognize red flags before someone is actually hurting us.

The parrallels in your relationship and my first long-term relationship are striking. I too was isolated and controlled in many of the same ways you described. We married after dating on and off again for many years but within eight months I was done. I simply packed a bag, called my mom to come get me, and walked out without a word. I knew that if I tried to explain anything I would be pulled back into his grasp. I had to let go of my fear that he would hurt himself and realize that he was hurting me even if I had no bruises to show.
Thankfully, a short time later I ran into someone I knew years before and we started dating. Now, over eight years later we are happily married and have a son we adore.
I always say that every hard thing we make it through teaches us what we don’t want to go through again. We learn that we are not going to put up with it again, and because of this new knowledge we are stronger and people like that are unable to control us.
I don’t know you, but I am proud of you for sharing such a difficult and painful story. Hopefully, it will help someone else in a bad situation have the strength to get out.

My first relationship was when I was in college. We started dating in 2002. At first, things were great. Then, he started his stupid, manipulative behavior. He had a very mild case of cerebal palsy, which caused him to walk with a slight limp. He thought this entitled him to sympathy from all who came into contact with him. He was VERY emotionally controlling, so much that I always felt like I was in the wrong, and I see now that I wasnt. He was also a liar. He told me things about his past I knew NOT to be true, but had to pretend to believe.
We went to a Christian college, where physical relationships outside of marraige were prohibited. We skated around the edges of sex, without ever really having intercourse. He became more and more needy, and I just lost interest in that aspect and in him period. But he pushed and pushed, and I found myself doing things I wasnt ever comfortable with. In the mailroom. In the t.v. room. In the car. Wherever he could get his pecker touched is where he took it. I still hate myself for giving in to his pushiness and guilt-tripping. If I didnt want it and I told him, he would just give me the silent treatment and walk away with that damn limp of his, pissed because I just didnt want to.
Sometimes he would show up at my dorm to walk me to class, and as I approached him, he would for no reason, give me the nastiest look, shake his head, and walk away. If I got a better grade on a paper than him, he wasnt proud of me.There was no joking, no congrats, nothing but a dirty look and a shaking head and the fast-limp away from me. DAMN IT. I hate him.
My family hated him, but were too loving and supportive of my new found love to share their concerns. All except my brother, who blatently told both me and the guy how he felt.
A lot happend in the 3 years we dated…a lot that I havent shared. He never really hit me, but he did shove me once. His abuse was more emotional and verbal.
I wanted SO badly to end the relationship long before I actually did, but we were on a very small campus, of no more than 350 students. It would have been very difficult to live there, so close to him, and not be what everyone expected….together. He would have made life a living hell for me. Even more than he did when we were together.
I finally got the courage to call it off when I graduated, in 2005. He had another year left. I was already home for about 2 weeks, and I just made up my mind to do it. I called him, explained that I didnt think it would work…we were too far apart…moving in different directions…it had to end. Of course, he was crying. Like the bitch that he was and is. I was too, but because I had just grown accostemed to him and hated to hurt someone, no matter how badly they hurt me.
I lost a lot of mutual friends over that shit. He told them a bunch of lies, and most of them turned their backs on me. I still have some good friends left who knew the dirt of the situation the whole time, and supported me and were proud of me for ending what would have been a very bad future for me.
That dick is married now, with a kid and one on the way. I wonder, does he treat her the way he treated me? If so, WHY is she married to him? I feel like maybe he hasnt changed. People like him dont change…they only get worse with the enabling.
I met a wonderful and completly opposite man not long after that, and we are still together now. I made up my mind to NOT put up with bullshit from anybody after that. I still carry those emotional scars from that relationship, and I always will.
But having the man I do makes it eaiser to get through the bad memories.

I’ve got thick skin so I usually skim past trigger warnings, but damn…. This one meant it, at least for me. I was in a relationship a lot like this once when I was in college. It took forever for me to really admit what was going on, not only because it was overwhelmingly emotional instead of physical, but because it was a lesbian relationship, and in my naivete I thought that abuse was only something that happened to straight women. This hits really close to home. I’m glad you are making it through. It is a struggle for me still, even though I’m in a wonderful loving relationship now.

Thank you for sharing, I had a high school relationship that was similar in its emotional abuse that I finally got out of when I went to college and realized that his emotional manipulation of me was not acceptable. I tried being friends with him, but when we would socialize he would just berate me for not paying enough attention to him and breaking his heart. I finally told him I was cutting off all contact with him but that didn’t stop him from stalking me over breaks (waiting in front of my house and yelling at me for made up reasons, such as I had a fan of his… really?!). My mom told him we were going to get a restraining order if he came over again, so that ended that. I wish there was more education on what abuse is because so many children and teenagers just know the “overtly violent depictions… in Lifetime movies” so they think their “less” abusive relationships are okay. This makes me so sad.

Thank you for writing this. It is so hard to look back on things that happened when we were so young, just learning, and see them clearly. So hard to see the abuse, the manipulation, the hate that grew from those relationships. I recently found out that the girl my abuser dated next, my former best friend, got married. To someone else. I was so happy for her, yet still hurt at the lies she helped spread. It never totally leaves, does it?

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